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David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

In my first blog I wrote about the different parties to Egypt’s current political crisis in the aftermath of the military coup that deposed President Morsi. I also tried to provide historical background to make better sense of the present dynamics.

This crisis has generated so much commentary on all sides that I decided to write three blogs on the Egyptian crisis. This time it’s about the revolutionaries, who they are and how they see the country’s future. Next time I’ll come full circle asking about the future of the Muslim Brotherhood and the role of Islam in general.


Picking up loose ends

I’m thinking of two “loose ends” from the first installment and in light of developments since then: the army’s shocking violations of human rights and role of the US since the coup.

First of all, I will have to agree with John Esposito who wrote a scathing article  in the Huffington Post accusing the army and its secular allies of returning the country to “a military backed authoritarian rule” – what he terms “Mubarak Redux.” General Sisi’s call for people to flood Tahrir Square Friday July 25 in support of the army’s effort to rid the country of “terrorists” is both divisive and dark. How might this pave the way for national reconciliation, the only realistic path away from either a civil war or naked military rule?

The fact that millions answered the call does not justify the tactic. Sisi was obviously playing on a deep-seated loathing of the Brotherhood on the secular side. Tamarod’s (or closer to the Arabic, Tamarrud, “Rebellion”) website before the event called on all Egyptians to come out to support the army “in the coming war against terrorism and cleansing the land.” Fighting words indeed!

By all credible accounts, the aftermath of the parallel protest by Morsi supporters was a second massacre. The army apparently went on a killing rampage in the wee hours of Saturday morning with over seventy dead (no soldiers killed). The Guardian reported that “The crush of dead and injured in the field hospitals was so intense that exhausted doctors struggled to cope”; and that the doctor in charge of the medical supplies said of the victims, “There were bullet holes in the centre of the forehead and right in the back of the skull. It was not just shooting to injure. They were shooting to kill.”

Naturally, this excessive use of force was immediately condemned by the US and EU, and Western countries have continued to call for restraint and for the transitional government to make an effort to bring all parties to the political table to break the current stranglehold. Even before July 27 first the UK and then Washington announced they were delaying  the shipment of promised weapons to Egypt. The Obama Administration in particular said it would put off the shipment of F-16 fighter jets. This is no doubt too little too late, as Americans are now hated by both sides – by the anti-Morsi side because the US supported Morsi until the coup, and by the pro-Morsi side because it didn’t condemn the coup.

Meanwhile, the BBC reported that the EU foreign policy chief, Lady Catherine Ashton, had been allowed to visit President Morsi in an undisclosed location. She reported that he was flanked by two advisers, in good spirits and well taken care of. She also seemed cautiously optimistic that in her conversation with all sides some progress could be made despite the drastically different starting points. The EU, plainly, is just about the only outside party that could potentially mediate between the two sides.

Let me add here that, despite my critical tone with regard to US or Saudi involvement in the events leading up to the coup in my first blog, I was not saying these outside influences caused the coup. As National University of Singapore scholar (and Middle East soccer blogger) James Dorsey writes , “It is too simplistic to reduce events to a conspiracy in which the United States and Saudi Arabia together with the military decided that it was time for Morsi to go.”

Perhaps the best piece I can offer you for a more objective – yet still insider – view of the events unfolding in Egypt is a long interview with Sameh Naguib, a leader of the Revolutionary Socialist party. First, despite his own polar differences with the Muslim Brotherhood, he denounces the way in which they are being repressed by the army, by the remnants of the Mubarak regime, and with support from many of the revolutionaries. What happened on two occasions already was “a terrible, terrible massacre.”

Second, as I had indicated earlier, the army had planned to step in and was thrilled be given such a perfect fig leaf in the form of the June 30 Rebellion:


You have on the one hand what is clearly a revolutionary wave involving millions and millions of the Egyptian people. On the other hand, the army and the old regime have used that unprecedented upsurge to get themselves back in the saddle and to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

“. . . the coup, in order to legitimate itself both within Egypt and outside - particularly for the west which is important - has a kind of liberal front.  So, all these people who have very good democratic credentials, like El Baradei, have been placed at the forefront as if there were an actual democratic process taking place. And importantly those people, and the financiers behind them, control the media in Egypt. They have big private media at their service, controlled by the billionaires who are supporting these two parties.”


That last statement about the media is a theme I picked up elsewhere as well, and I have now added the new media in the hands of the wealthy industrialist class to the list of “players” in my last blog. As elsewhere, big money seeks to dominate politics no matter the context.

So much for the slight update from the last blog… As the crisis continues to unfold, my purpose here is to step back and give a brief synopsis of the social dynamics of the youth who, after all, triggered the “Arab Spring.”


Who are these revolutionaries?

Mohammed Bamyeh is a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh who also happened to be on sabbatical doing research in Cairo the year the January 2011 revolution broke out. I am referring here to his recent piece  in Jadaliyya (an online journal published by the Arab Studies Institute in Beirut and Washington, DC) entitled “The June Rebellion.” Bamyeh has been in Egypt in the last month and interviewed people on the streets. Let me pass on three important points he makes about the revolutionary dynamic.


1. The January revolution is an irreversible social movement with the June rebellion as just one more manifestation of it. As new events unfold, people apply what they learned before. In this sense, we can speak of a revolutionary “unconscious.” In Bamyeh’s words, “What is clear now is that the events we now know as the Arab Spring will constitute a long historical process. It will take many years to arrive at a stable destination defined by a new social consensus.” What one activist told him (“I’m here because I believe in harakat al-shari’ – the “street dynamic”) is indicative of a sea change in the average Egyptian’s involvement with politics. Here Bamyeh expresses both its social impact and its current limitation:


“During the struggle over the constitution at the end of 2012, with millions of people on the streets and the country on the edge of civil war, the most elementary observation of all appeared to escape all concerned: that this was the first time in modern Egyptian history that ordinary individuals actually cared about a constitution in such large numbers. That care was itself a profoundly new social phenomenon, indicating a great social transformation and the entrenchment in society of a perspective that no longer saw whatever happened at the level of high politics as external to ordinary people. But ordinary citizens do not know, yet, how to normalize this high politics, that it to say, how to bring it closer to them.”


Still, I want you to notice how two intelligent and articulate individuals (both “secular,” by the way) can interpret this social dynamic so very differently. Bamyeh is one of the very few sociologists in American academia who is a self-described anarchist (no, Bradly Manning and Edward Snowden, or Julian Assange of Wikileaks, don’t come close to defining a view that favors grassroots movements and mistrusts state power!). Keep that in mind as you read this excerpt commenting on the same phenomenon but seen through the lens of socialist party activist Sameh Naguib. He had just mentioned that this was a revolution that had brought “direct democracy” to millions of ordinary Egyptians. Asked whether this was simply about numbers, he answers: 


It involves sheer numbers in the squares, but many people have the idea that these are a leaderless kind of process. There’s always a leadership in these revolutions. There’s always a method of taking decisions. It’s extremely democratic and people who take part learn about direct democracy, about being involved directly.  Where will the demonstration go to? Will we use violence or not? How will we defend a demonstration? All these questions are up for democratic debate and decision. Again, it is a similar thing with the strike movement.  What do we do with the owner if he closes down the factory? Should we occupy the factory? Should we run the factory instead? There are all sorts of decisions that people learn how to take. In the process they develop a kind of democratic engagement that goes far beyond the very limited framework for democracy that we have worldwide.”


For both Naguib and Bamyeh, the Egyptian people are indeed avid democracy apprentices, learning as they go and eager to find more effective ways to bring about change.


2. We are witnessing the power of “revolutionary legitimacy” at work. This certainly phenomenon fluctuated after the initial January revolution, but its logic was unquestionably at work through the collection of signatures by the Tamarod campaign leading up to June 30. As Bamyeh put it,


Thus the success of the Tamarod campaign in enlisting more than one quarter of the total population of this enormous country in a petition demanding the removal of the president, was a clear indication that the demand possessed more legitimacy than whatever the constitution or any law or court said. Without this campaign and the feelings it generated of the power of society over and above the state and its laws, it is possible that 30 June may have passed as just another day. Revolutionary legitimacy therefore first needed empirical proof of its existence, after which its work became easier.”


Bamyeh notes that it’s like an underground volcano with “episodic eruptions” and that “we should expect revolutionary legitimacy to be our subterranean but sometimes very noisy companion for a long time.” This is because of the contribution of two factors: 1) “acute alertness to all dangers and developments”; 2) a strong suspicion based on past experience that the state and its institutions are corrupt.

I’ll insert a piece to corroborate that second point from the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. Egyptian journalist Wael Iskander reported on a movement that was born in December, 2011, after the army brutally attacked peaceful protesters outside the parliament building and then denied using any excessive force. An activist by the name of Sally Toma combined a YouTube video documenting soldiers dragging, beating and stripping a woman while kicking another woman with the audio background of an army spokesman denying any wrongdoing. That was the beginning of a movement called “Liars” (Kazeboon) that has taken Egypt by storm (at the last minute it declared common cause with Tamarod). It has exposed the hypocrisy of the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) that ruled Egypt for over a year after the revolution, of the Morsi regime, and now of the military-propped up transitional government.

I say “movement,” because activists who belong to various political parties (and mostly to no parties at all) show these short films projected onto walls or sheets hung up – often in poor neighborhoods across the country. Because they can be downloaded from the internet, they are widely available and very suitable for this kind of grassroots campaigning.

Iskander wraps up his article by summarizing their aim: “Kazeboon will continue to counter the regime's narrative when it distorts the facts, irrespective of who is in power.” And then this more specific addition as a parting word:


“Now that Morsi has been deposed by the military, Kazeboon is exposing lies and violations on different sides. It is preparing to take on whatever remains of the “liars in the name of religion,” such as the Nour party [the Salafists], along with the state apparatus that continues its brutality, impunity, and flawed narrative.”


This is clearly symptomatic of a people shaking their collective apathy, building on their newfound revolutionary consciousness, and awakening to the urgency of telling the state that it cannot make decisions without their consent.


3. Finally, the June 30 crowd – up to 20 million around the country, some say – was extremely diverse and consciously thought of themselves as representing the “Egyptian people.” In the early stages of the project it was the vital energy of the youth activists that carried forward the signatures campaign; but on June 30 the crowd was of all ages and segments of society. Since the target of the protest was an islamist regime, “it could not have succeeded without the mobilization of ordinary conservatism and traditional piety against the idea of a religious government,” comments Bamyeh.

Sarah Eltantawi, a fellow in Arab Studies at U. C. Berkeley doing research in Cairo these days, spent a whole day interviewing and photographing people in Tahrir Square right after the coup (that’s her picture on top of this page). In her blog (look up "Dispatches from Cairo by Sarah Eltantawi") she expressed it this way: “I saw a great, wide variety of people today, from the very poor to the very rich, Muslims of all stripes including several niqaabis [full-face veils, a Salafi marker], Christians (I assume) – really just everyone – a genuine slice of the country.”

Though the final blog in this trilogy is focused on religion, let me just end this one by picking up on this last statement. If many traditional, conservative Muslims joined the rebellion against the Muslim Brotherhood, on what ground were they so opposed to them? Eltantawi would agree with Bamyeh that it was a crowd whose anger stemmed from a wound inflicted to their collective Egyptian psyche. Bamyeh writes that “anarchy in June [note his positive use of this term], just as in January, seems closely associated with a patriotic, rather than a nationalistic conception of peoplehood.” It’s revolutionary mostly because it believes itself to embody a “social consensus.”

Eltantawi, for her part, explains that Morsi had tried to rule from his own party only and that the people felt left out. She noted that his political speeches always started with “Ahli wa-‘ashiirati” (“My family and tribe”) – quite the opposite from Sadat who used to address the nation as “My brothers and sisters.” As a result, they feel “rescued” by the army’s intervention and deeply resent the fact that the US (and the international community in general) even considered calling it a “coup” and curtailing their regular funding as a result. As the picture above earnestly conveys, these people see the people calling on the army to intervene – not the other way around.

And then this observation that sums up much of what she heard that day:


People are really and truly insulted that their religiosity and Islamic theology and practice has been questioned by people who seem to think they are better Muslims and thus better people than them. This is hardly a way to win people over. I was on the Qasr al-'Ayni bridge when fitar [the daily breaking of the Ramadan fast] time came; it was eerily silent with people breaking their fast despite the fact that thousands of people were there. Church bells rang at the same time as the ithaan [Islamic call to prayer].”


On this warm note of Muslim-Christian solidarity and with a question rising in our minds about why deeply religious Muslims could be so adamantly against the Muslim Brotherhood, I’ll end here my thoughts about this revolution that, after all, may not be in jeopardy – if only General Sisi keeps his word about truly handing power to a civilian government and a way is found to woo the Muslim Brotherhood back into the political process.

In the run-up to the “June 30th Rebellion” I was already reading everything I could get my eyes on. Then in the aftermath of the military coup that toppled President Morsi on July 3rd, I read even more voraciously. By then, our son and his group of students had been in a poor Christian neighborhood of Cairo for a week and their service project of six weeks looked seriously compromised. In fact, after three weeks they were whisked out at four in the morning in five private cars by the Coptic Orthodox bishop to be sent back to the US. As parents, we were relieved!

So what did I learn from all this reading? For one thing, I noticed both among pundits and scholars that there was an immediate polarization between those who applauded the army’s intervention because it had shored up the popular will (e.g., Khaled Fahmy  and Sarah Carr) and those who decried the army’s “coup” which had ostensibly destroyed the legitimate workings of the democratic process (e.g., Esposito and Voll, Noah Feldman, Fawaz Gerges). This is a return to the repressive “deep state” that the revolution had aimed to sweep aside two years before, they argued.

My title seems to indicate that I side with the second group. Actually, as the days passed, I came to see a wider, more complex reality at work. In fact, it’ll take me another blog to finish my thought on this. Now I’ll start with the protagonists in this unfolding drama and then move on to an analysis on two levels – the longstanding and uneasy political dance between the secular elites, the army and the Islamists, and next time the sociological implications of the emergence of the young revolutionaries.


Players on the Egyptian political chessboard

In this and the next section I’ll lean mostly on the perceptive analysis of UCLA’s Khaled Abou El Fadl not a trained political scientist but a human rights lawyer and a specialist in Islamic law. El Fadl’s concern in his essay, “The Collapse of Legitimacy,” is to highlight the blind and self-serving role the “secular intelligentsia” has played since the 1952 October Revolution (which in a couple of years brought Gamal Abd al-Nasser to power) up to today’s military coup. So here are some of the players in this high-stakes game of chess:

1. The secular-leaning elite, who like their forefathers in the nineteenth century were educated in Western schools and steeped in Western intellectual, civic and political values. They have no faith in the masses; in fact, they are convinced that they only hold the keys to civilization and progress.

2. The “guardians of the state”:

a) First, the army, because ever since the 1952 “revolution” they brought into being by force of arms, all the presidents were from their ranks (Abd al-Nasser, Sadate and Mubarak).

b) Next, the judiciary, mostly represented by its Constitutional Court, whose leader, Adly Mansour, was immediately named by the army as the interim president.

c) Finally, the police, which falls under the Ministry of Interior. Morsi had named Mohammed Ibrahim as Minister of Interior, probably hoping that a leftover of the Mubarak regime would offer him some loyalty in return for the favor. That obviously backfired, as Ibrahim has now been named “transitional Minister of Interior.” Tellingly, even the Republican Guard, sworn to protect the president, didn’t lift a finger to keep him from house arrest but rather killed scores of Morsi protesters by shooting in the crowd.

3. The mostly young, well-educated revolutionaries behind the tamarrod (“rebellion”) movement are the third party to this unfolding drama. More on them in Part 2.

4. The new media, most secular-leaning TV stations, financed by some of Egypt's tycoons; they've bolstered the anti-Morsi sentiment. But the Salafis have received generous donations from Saudi Arabia and they have at least two influential channels. That said, the Muslim Brotherhood has benefitted from Qatari largesse in this area as well. On all these fronts you are witnessing the impact of money made by a few at the top in a capitalist, neoliberal type of economy -- which was certainly favored by the Mubarak regime but also Morsi's. Since top military brass owns close to 40% of the pie, don't look for any changes on the new horizon.

4. The masses – by which I mean the rural and urban poor for whom Islam is central to their daily lives and the core of their identity. Cairo sociologist Saad al-Din Ibrahim likes to call them the “lumpen proletariat.” They voted overwhelmingly for islamist candidates, whether the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafis. One would have to add to their number, however, the urban middle classes who handsomely benefitted from President Sadate’s sudden turn to neoliberal capitalism in the mid-1970s and who to a large extent supported the Muslim Brotherhood.

That fourth group is terribly important – Egypt as a whole, including its ten-percent Christian minority, is very religious. Islam, for the foreseeable future, will have to figure in some shape or fashion in the political landscape. This is the point made by John Esposito and John Voll, both senior islamicists at Georgetown University. For that reason they both decry the army’s July 3rd forceful takeover and warn all who supported it about their shortsightedness:


“It is wishful thinking on the part of the old Mubarak regime holdovers and the disorganized secular elite in Egypt to think that their counter-revolution will change the general popular Egyptian identification with Islam. The goal should not be to oust those Islamists who are working within the system, it should be to find bridges of accommodation in which the secularists and those identified with the old military regime people will make as many compromises as they demanded from President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Unless this is done, the risk is the creation of a cycle, more military repression and bloodshed and a return to military backed authoritarian rule in Egypt.”


Ignoring the people’s “identification with Islam” guarantees that the revolution hasn’t yet found its balance. [For a great discussion between a top Brotherhood leader, a secular-leaning political scientist, and an Egyptian-British sholar on islamist movements, see this debate on al-Jazeera]. All these players will have to somehow figure out a way to come to the table together and discuss these issues face to face. That is the only sustainable solution. Either way, the road looks very steep up ahead.


These players and the external pressures on them

It was in fact the young, mostly secularist revolutionaries, who spearheaded the June 30 Rebellion. At the same time, the army had been looking for an excuse to overthrow Morsi for some time (The Daily Beast). Washington was also nudging it in that direction (both Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey had repeatedly been on the phone with their Egyptian counterparts for the last week, according to Garikai Chengu; Abou El Fadl writes, “the military stated negotiating with Washington, D.C. to remove Morsi from power”). The US military and the Egyptian one have been working closely since the 1979 Camp David Accords. Unfortunately, some of the leverage Washington counts on in return for their cash gets diluted through lucrative deals with US arms dealers.

And then too, since the 2011 Revolution the State Department’s “democracy assistance” initiative has been channeling funds to a variety of anti-Morsi politicians and activists. Al-Jazeera obtained documents from UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program to show that some of this money had gone to some rather unsavory characters. Nonetheless, acting like a typical colonial power, the United States, while simultaneously upholding the legitimacy of the Morsi government on the international scene (angering many of the secular elites), also earmarked clandestine aid for the opposition. Egypt’s location makes it very strategic, especially for the US and Israel – its military will receive $1.3 billion in 2014, if Obama gets his way. The Suez Canal too is a key passageway for oil tankers.

Moreover, US interests in the affair nicely dovetailed with those of the Arabian Gulf countries (especially Saudi Arabia, see The American Conservative on this – but definitely not pro-Brotherhood Qatar!).

These facts are all interesting, to be sure, but despite outside pressures from several quarters, as I said, Egyptians will have to come to terms with their own future. And for this, knowing the past is always a useful starting point.


Some useful historical perspective

Here’s Abou El Fadl’s basic thesis:


“The military coup, even if it came in response to widespread grievances, is a fatal blow to the Egyptian Revolution. It is a fatal blow because it reaffirmed the politics of the old guardians in Egypt. It confirmed the traditional polarized, mutually exclusivist and equally supremacist politics that has prevailed, not only in Egypt, but throughout the Middle East since the colonial era. Unfortunately, the military coup and the return of the repressive security forces in Egypt came as a natural conclusion to the elasticity of the claims of legitimacy made by so many parties after the revolution.”


He then adds, “But more than anything else, it is the Egyptian secular intelligentsia and the revolutionaries themselves that forced the revolution to commit suicide.” Why is that? The root of this age-old conflict to the death about legitimacy is found in the attitude of the secular elites, argues El Fadl. Since the 1950s Arab dictators from Gamal Abd al-Nasser to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad (and his son Bashar) have dismissed (arrested, tortured and killed as well!) members of any and all islamists movements, accusing them of being agents of foreign powers.

Though the nineteenth century did see an Islamic reform movement that tried to reconcile modern notions of freedom and human dignity (like the great Muhammad Abduh in Egypt), these elites were “thoroughly grounded in post-renaissance European thought” and “knew precious little about the pre-colonial Islamic epistemic tradition. Indeed, this intelligentsia saw their own native tradition largely through Western eyes.” This prejudice hardened even more with the advent of the socialist Pan-Arab agenda adopted by the intelligentsia from the mid-1950s on. For them, religion was clearly an obstacle to “progress.”

The secular Arab state tolerated religion, but only as fenced-in within certain parameters. Observe in the following quote from El Fadl how the state take-over of al-Azhar University in Cairo (the most prestigious seat of Islamic learning worldwide) in the 1960s had repercussions in the events of July 2013:


“The secular state created officially sanctioned podiums for religion and, in effect, created an official state religion that rubber-stamped and legitimated state politics. At the same time, this state-sponsored religion lost its legitimacy on the ground as the clergy of Azhar became salaried employees of the state. With the domestication of the native Azhari clergy, critical Islamic thought drifted into stale apologetics that placated and satisfied only the most uninspired and unchallenging intellects. This helps explain the powerful symbolism invoked when El-Sissi placed the Shaykh of al-Azhar and the Pope of the Coptic Church on either side of him when he announced his coup.”


The 1967 Arab defeat at the hand of Israel was the watershed moment for the masses, however. Preachers in nearly every mosque begin telling them that this humiliation came directly from the hand of God who was now punishing them for abandoning his ways (or his “shari’a”). This marked the beginning of a populist islamist opposition movement that only gained greater momentum with the 1979 Iranian Revolution, despite its Shi’i origin. [I was living in Algeria at the time, and I saw the mosques which had been nearly empty save a few old men fill up over night with young people].

But even as the people became more religious and the call for the state to shed its secular agenda more strident, the rulers simply multiplied their repressive measures in a bid to hold on to power. They did so, however, by claiming for themselves the ideals of the Western-led international order: democracy, pluralism, and human rights. The fact that a faction of islamists had become violent, especially in the 1990s, was a boon to their cause. Western nations were only too glad to call Mubarak an ally in the “War on Terror.”

Now for the 2011 Revolution: “The Egyptian revolution was sparked by an idealistic group of youth who had lost faith in all the institutions of power. This youth was defiant, innocent, idealistic, and uncorrupted. But it was successful because the destitute masses had suffered enough.” So the secular elites were now forced to practice what they had preached all along, and without the power of the repressive state (mostly the army) to back them up. As El Fadl puts it,


“For the first time, they could not simply dismiss the Islamists with contempt and arrogance, and they would have to figure out a native language – a language that does not simply transplant Western concepts, ideas and historical movements, but would actually empower these ideas with meaning to the Egyptian people. Would the secular intelligentsia be capable of working through the will of the people without guardian state institutions such as the army, police, or judiciary to package this will and present it in a palatable fashion?”


You can read all the details of Abou El Fadl’s essay for yourself. Let me add just two more points he makes near the end:

1. He thinks the Saudis were deliberately sabotaging Morsi by turning off their oil spigot and causing power outages and gasoline shortages. They certainly had the power to do so.

2. The June 30 Rebellion was a gift to the secular intelligentsia, who were already calling on the old guardians of the state (military and judiciary) to step in. As he puts it, “Reminiscent of the role they have consistently played since the colonial era, they called upon old guardians to save the country from the follies of its natives.”

Well, you can see where his argument is going – the revolutionaries were naïve enough to rely on the army. Indeed, they unwittingly brought back the old regime and the revolution is no more. Or is it?

I will continue in my next blog by analyzing the revolutionary movement from a sociological perspective.

There are times in the history of God’s dealing with humanity when the wall between the human world of time and space and the invisible, supernatural world of God and angels becomes paper-thin. That’s when angels appear. Think of Jacob’s dream of a ladder connecting heaven and earth with angels walking up and down. God, at the top of the ladder, begins speaking to him, renewing the promises made to his grandfather Abraham and father Isaac. Upon awakening in the morning Jacob declared, “What an awesome place this is! It is none other than the house of God, the very gateway to heaven!” (Gen. 28:17 NLT).

Fast-forward more than a millennium and a half to a starry night in the countryside below the village of Bethlehem where shepherds were watching their sheep. Luke, the only Gentile author in the Bible, tells the story:


“Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. ‘Don’t be afraid!’ he said. ‘I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.’ Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

‘Glory to God in highest heaven,

and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.’” (Luke 2:9-14 NLT).


Finally, Matthew takes us to a little mountaintop where Jesus had taken his closest disciples, Peter, James and John. Here the allusions to Moses and Mount Sinai are meant to strike the reader:


As the men watched, Jesus’ appearance was transformed so that his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared and began talking with Jesus. Peter exclaimed, ‘Lord, it’s wonderful for us to be here! If you want, I’ll make three shelters as memorials—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ But even as he spoke, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy. Listen to him.’ The disciples were terrified and fell face down on the ground. Then Jesus came over and touched them. ‘Get up,’ he said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’ And when they looked up, Moses and Elijah were gone, and they saw only Jesus. As they went back down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (Mat. 17:2-9 NLT).


You can almost hear Matthew whisper under his breath, “Pay attention to the symbols of this Jewish Messiah!” You have the mountain, terror and awe, the voice of God, the cloud (Shekinah glory), and – most importantly – two of the greatest representatives of Israelite prophethood: Moses, who presided over the Exodus and received the Law; and Elijah, the greatest prophet in the days of the kings who was taken up to heaven in a flaming chariot.

But you also have one greater than the prophets. His whole being radiates with light and God’s voice intones, “This is my dearly loved Son.”

This is the message passed on by all the New Testament writers in different ways. Heaven bursts open with the jubilation of angels – the time had finally come for the revelation of the Son and his ushering in the kingdom of God, and for the wonderful news of salvation not just for Jews but for all humankind. In the opening words of the book of Hebrews:


Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe. The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command. When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven. This shows that the Son is far greater than the angels, just as the name God gave him is greater than their names” (Heb. 1:1-4 NLT).


Though the idea of Jesus as the embodiment of God’s glory on earth is present throughout the New Testament, I’ll limit myself to just two instances, which perhaps best highlight the commonalities and contrasts of Islamic and Christian understandings of God’s glory.


Moses’ veil and the surpassing glory of the New Covenant

Moses climbed the mountain three times. First, there was a brief meeting with God who then gave him instructions on the procedures for the revelation of the Law (Ex. 19:3-6). Then there were the two extended stays on the mountain (both “40 days and nights”; the first, Ex. 24:13 to 32:7, after which Moses smashes the first set of tablets, v. 19; then the second stay, Ex. 34:1-29). It was on that last descent with the second pair of tablets in hand that the scriptures mention, “he wasn’t aware that his face had become radiant because he had spoken to the Lord” (Ex. 34:29).

As noted in the last blog, once the tabernacle was built, Moses would come out from one of his meetings with God with his face glowing. Because this instilled fear in the people, it seems, Moses would then veil his face.

The Apostle Paul had his own interpretation of these stories in his second letter to the Corinthians. Traditional Jewish interpretation sees Moses’ face shining till his dying day. Paul apparently knew of a different tradition, because his argument is based on the progressive fading of that glow on Moses’ face. He sets out to prove that however “glorious” the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai had been, the New Covenant through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is much more glorious. The Old Covenant, written as it was on stone tablets, led to death – no one can be saved by obeying the commandments, because it is humanly impossible to so perfectly. But, just as the prophets Jeremiah (31:33-35) and Ezekiel (36:26-27) had predicted, the New Covenant would be written on people’s hearts through the Holy Spirit. Here’s his reasoning:


“If the old way, which brings condemnation, was glorious, how much more glorious is the new way, which makes us right with God! In fact, that first glory was not glorious at all compared with the overwhelming glory of the new way . . . We are not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so the people of Israel would not see the glory, even though it was destined to fade away. But the people’s minds were hardened, and to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ . . . But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image” (II Cor. 3:9-10; 13-14; 16-18 NLT).


Yes, says Paul, Moses did talk with God face to face. But he was only the mediator of a transitional covenant – one that was to prepare for the coming of Messiah who through his vicarious death wiped away our sins and reconciled us to God. What is more, the New Covenant releases the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer, bringing true freedom -- (s)he is now free to live for God and reflect his glory more and more each day. Thus we read in Chapter 5 of the same letter, “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (II Cor. 5:19 NIV). He also puts it this way, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (v. 21 NIV).


Jesus, the final revelation of God’s glory

It’s the passage in between those two chapters in II Corinthians that launched me in into this 3-blog series in the first place. Here Paul speaks of the Jews (including also the Gentiles) who refused his message of “Good News” (or “gospel”) as blinded by a veil. So in the same passage, Paul transitions from Moses wearing a veil to the Jews continuing to wear a similar veil – similar because it shields them from seeing the glory of God in his Messiah Jesus: “Yes, even today when they read Moses’ writings, their hearts are covered with that veil, and they do not understand” (II Cor. 3:15).

Paul, the first great Christian missionary, had consistently endured hardships, suffering, and narrowly escaping death on many occasions while planting churches all over territories now occupied by Turkey and Greece. For him the great opposition to the gospel was spiritual in nature – Satan jealously defending his earthly kingdom from the advances of God’s expanding kingdom through the preaching of Jesus’ followers. In his own words,


“If the Good News we preach is hidden behind a veil, it is hidden only from people who are perishing. Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God” (II Cor. 4:3-4 NLT).


With the next two verses I will close this series on God’s glory. Notice already the correlation between God’s light and his glory – something we also pointed to in the Qur’an. What is more, an influential Sufi tradition well attested in the Sunna associates God’s light with the preexisting “Light of Muhammad.” Still, there is no hint that the Prophet might also be divine.

Here by contrast, Paul rejoins John and the other New Testament writers in affirming that Jesus shared God’s glory because in some sense he is God. In the famous prayer Jesus prays moments before he is arrested, he addresses the Father in these words, “I brought glory to you on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, bring me into the glory we shared before the world began” (John 17:4 NLT).

So the common ground is God’s glory and light, graphically pictured in the experience of Moses on Mount Sinai. Included in that are all the ethical values that go along with the metaphor of light: truth, integrity of character, justice, and the like. Light dispels darkness and overcomes it. All God’s revealed books, says the Qur’an, are light – including of course the “gospel.” And much of what it affirms about Jesus the prophet can also supported from the New Testament. But Jesus or Isa as “word from God” or “spirit from God” will necessarily be interpreted differently by both communities.

In fact, the commonalities veer into opposing views on the nature of revelation. As I mentioned in the beginning of this series, for Muslims God sent down a book; for Christians God sent down his Son. Muslims and Christians will need to keep on preaching what they feel God revealed to them. My hope is that this will happen increasingly in a spirit of humility and respect, and with ears attuned to what the other is saying too. But preaching and “invitation” (da’wa) must always be part of the mix of Muslim-Christian relations. So I end with Paul:


“We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Cor. 4:5-6 NLT).

I find it fascinating that God’s glory in both Qur’an and Bible revolves around Moses and his prophetic role at Mount Sinai – except that, as we will now see, this theme thoroughly permeates the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament – I’m hoping Jews will enter this dialog as well!). As we learned from the Ayatollah Khomeini in the first blog, God’s glory is actually more tied up with his “Beautiful Names,” one of which is “glorious” (majid, Q. 11:73; 85:15).

We’ll start with Moses, looking both at the light that shone from his face (leading him to wear a veil) and at God’s “Shekinah glory,” the supernatural combination of light and cloud that accompanied the Israelites through the desert after the Exodus and later manifested in the Tabernacle and Solomon’s temple.


The word kabod in the Hebrew Bible

Though there are other words for “glory” in the Hebrew Bible, by far the one most used to convey the idea of honor and dignity (189 times) is kabod. Literally, it means “to be heavy or weighty.” One of its rare negative connotations relates to sin: something or someone “heavy with sin.” Almost always though, kabod conveys the weight of honor and value (think of gold or a person with great influence).

Here we immediately run into a theology of humanity. Look at Psalm 8 that begins with this Semitic connection between a person’s name and his/her very being and dignity: “O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth! Your glory fills the heavens.” Then the psalmist reflects on the human being, the crown of God’s creation:


“[W]hat are mere mortals that you should think about them,

human beings that you should care for them?

Yet you made them only a little lower than God

and crowned them with glory and honor.

You gave them charge of everything you made,

putting all things under their authority—

the flocks and the herds

and all the wild animals,

the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea,

and everything that swims the ocean currents” (Ps. 8:4-8 NLT).


Think too of the Bible’s opening page:


So God created human beings in his own image.

In the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

Then God blessed them and said,

“Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it.

Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky,

and all the animals that scurry along the ground” (Gen. 1:27-28).


So God imparted a small portion of his indescribable light (his “image”) on his human representatives, those empowered by him to rule over the earth’s creatures in his stead. Hence, the common Muslim-Jewish-Christian theme running through this website: all of us together on this planet are mandated by our Creator to manage well the affairs of this Good Earth … and for this we will be held accountable on the Last Day.


Moses’ shining face

The story of Moses’ amazing experience in the Exodus picks up this theme of God’s tangible and luminous presence among his people. The next section deals with the “pillar of cloud by day” and the “pillar of fire by night.” Here we move directly to Moses’ third experience on Mount Sinai after he had smashed the first set of stone tablets out of anger at the people’s idolatry and debauchery.

Just as the second time Moses climbed the mountain to receive God’s law, the sight of God’s glory was spectacular, even terrifying:


Then Moses climbed up the mountain, and the cloud covered it. And the glory of the Lord settled down on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from inside the cloud. To the Israelites at the foot of the mountain, the glory of the Lord appeared at the summit like a consuming fire. Then Moses disappeared into the cloud as he climbed higher up the mountain. He remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights” (Exodus 24:15-18).


Perhaps not surprisingly, those many days of intimate communion with God left a physical mark on Moses. As he comes down the mountain, says the text, his face was shining, causing fear in his brother Aaron and all the people (Exodus 34:29). So after his initial instructions to them, he put a veil over his face. This became a pattern:


When Moses finished speaking with them, he covered his face with a veil. But whenever he went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with the Lord, he would remove the veil until he came out again. Then he would give the people whatever instructions the Lord had given him, and the people of Israel would see the radiant glow of his face. So he would put the veil over his face until he returned to speak with the Lord” (Ex. 34:33-35).


Here I pick up a commentary by a Jewish believer in Jesus as Messiah (from a large but diverse movement called “Messianic Judaism” – most definitely not recognized by mainstream Judaism). John Parsons cites a midrash (like tafsir for the Qur’an, or “commentary”), writing that “the radiance on Moses' face was a reflection of the Divine Light God created on the first day - a light that was 60,075 times brighter than the sun.”

Allow me to interject here a tantalizing parallel in the Islamic tradition. According to Q. 7:172 all human souls were brought before God in Adam’s presence and made to swear their allegiance to God as their Lord. This is the basis of the Islamic belief that everyone is born “muslim” (submitted to God). At that point, all the future prophets stood out from the masses as shining lights, but none as bright as Muhammad, whose substance had been created first (hence, before Adam), yet who was sent to earth as the last prophet. Even before his lifetime, Muhammad’s father’s forehead shone already – or, according to one tradition, “a light rested between his eyes.” Then his mother Amina witnessed several miraculous visions while pregnant with him.

Legends often grow up around great religious figures. Muhammad is no exception. In the body of hadith (reports about what the Prophet said or did, written some 2 or 300 years later) we read that during his 22 years as prophet light consistently emanated from his body. “Whenever he went in darkness,” says one hadith, “light was shining around him like the moonlight.” At other times on a dark night his fingers would light up the way for his disciples. In all these instances, what is at stake is the “proof” of Muhammad b. Abdallah’s prophethood – the Nur Muhammadi, the primordial light of Muhammad. I find it likely that this idea originated in the Jewish-Muslim-Christian dialogs and debates in Medina during the period of the “Rightly-Guided Caliphs” (632-661) and beyond.

Back to Moses and his radiant face coming down from the mountain. Have you ever wondered why medieval art represents Moses with horns jutting out of his head? John Parsons tells us that Jerome in his 4th century Latin translation of the Bible mistook keren (horns) for karan (shone). Aside from the humor of a whole iconographic tradition originating in a confusion of terms, it must have been frustrating for Jerome to explain what the veil had to do the horns!

On a more serious note, in the next blog we will have to disentangle another knot with regard to Paul’s midrash of Moses and the veil.


The Shekinah glory of God

God’s dramatic deliverance of Abraham’s descendants from their enslavement to Pharaoh – the Exodus – culminates with the covenant on Mount Sinai. As the Israelites vow to obey the law given to Moses on their behalf, God commits to being their God. As he says to Moses on his first encounter on the mountain, “Now if you obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6 NLT).

Thus begins God’s tangible self-disclosure in the physical world. This is the “Shekinah glory” of God, though not a term in the biblical text itself, but used by later Jewish sources to refer to God’s visible presence particularly in the tabernacle and first temple. Coming from the verb meaning “to dwell” (cognate of the Arabic verb sa-ka-na), it denotes God’s glory resting among his people in the place he chooses to dwell.

Its first instance is the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night – God’s guiding and protecting hand over the Israelites as they fled Egypt in the Exodus (Ex. 13:21). Its “consuming fire” even kept Pharaoh’s army from reaching them when they were backed up against the Red Sea the night before God parted it to let the Israelites through.

This Shekinah presence of God next manifests with the completion of the portable desert sanctuary, the tabernacle:


Then Moses set up the courtyard around the tabernacle and altar and put up the curtain at the entrance to the courtyard. And so Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Ex. 40:33-34 NIV).


The early pattern of the Exodus continued throughout the forty years in the wilderness:


In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out—until the day it lifted. So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the Israelites during all their travels (Ex. 40:37-38 NIV)


 In the same manner, when King Solomon has completed the construction of the temple in Jerusalem, he initiated a solemn ritual involving thousands of animal sacrifices and loud praises performed by the priestly musicians, in the midst of which he and Israel’s elders followed the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant and other sacred vessels of the old tabernacle into their new sanctuary. Then we read:


When the priests came out of the Holy Place, a thick cloud filled the Temple of the Lord. The priests could not continue their service because of the cloud, for the glorious presence of the Lord filled the Temple” (I Kings 8:10-11 NLT).


My Muslim readers may recall that the word Shekinah appears twice in the Qur’an but with a different meaning and a different function. The context is the minor pilgrimage to Mecca (‘umra) that Muhammad led with a few thousand Muslims in 628. The Meccans stopped the peaceful procession in the plain of Hudaybiya, just a few miles away. After two days of negotiation, both sides signed a treaty stipulating that the Muslims will be allowed to make the full pilgrimage the next year. In the meantime, they must now return to Medina, but a truce between Mecca and Medina will stand for ten years. On the same occasion, Muhammad’s followers, despite many of them being dissatisfied by what they perceived as their leader pacifying the enemy through compromise, nevertheless pledged allegiance to him under a tree in the plain of Hudaybiya. In the sura devoted to this topic (Fath, “Triumph”), we read:


“God was pleased with the believers when they swore allegiance to you [Prophet] under the tree: He knew what was in their hearts and so He sent tranquility (sakina, Arabic cognate of Hebrew shekinah) down to them and rewarded them with a speedy triumph” (Q. 48:18 Abdel Haleem).


So in that first instance, the sakina was a peaceful willingness to submit to their leader as they submitted to God. And as it turned out, this treaty proved to be a boon for the Muslim side, for it allowed Muhammad to rally most of the other Arabian tribes to his cause. Two years later, he rode victoriously into Mecca with 10,000 soldiers. Islam had indeed triumphed.

The sakina also applied to Muhammad personally at Hudaybiya. In the second instance this word is used, the tranquility that is “sent down” (recall that this is the qur’anic way of depicting revelation) is meant to reassure Muhammad and bind him to his followers  as a new nation distinct from the “ignorance” (jahiliyya) of pagan Arabian society:


“While the disbelievers had stirred up fury in their hearts – the fury of ignorance – God sent His tranquility down on to His Messenger and the believers and made binding on them [their] promise to obey God, for that was more appropriate and fitting for them. God has full knowledge of all things” (Q. 48:26 Abdel Haleem).


The people’s pledge (bay’a) to Muhammad offers some intriguing parallels to the Sinai covenant, albeit much less dramatic. But the text unquestionably points to God’s “sending down” his sakina at this pivotal moment in the formation of a new people under God.


Hints of the incarnation to come

From a Christian viewpoint, the Shekinah glory of God points to the coming both of the Son in Bethlehem and the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. So much could be said about all of this, but let me just remind you of John’s Prologue with which I ended the first blog. In the time of God’s choosing, the Word – “who was with God and was God” – “became human and made his home among us” (John 1:14). The Greek literally reads, “pitched his tent among us.”

As God’s Shekinah glory filled the tabernacle and then the temple as it was inaugurated, so God took a more radical step and pitched his tabernacle among his people in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He actually became one of them, though born without a human father and the stain of sin so as to become on the cross “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Here I begin a three-part comparative look at the theme of God’s glory in the Qur’an and the Bible. I haven’t seen this done before, but the idea came to me recently as I was meditating on II Corinthians 5. God as light is a central concept in both traditions and extending this metaphor to God’s glory will enable us to tease out some fascinating convergences and contrasts.


The divine light in the Qur’an

The Qur’an never states “God is light,” but two verses speak of his light illuminating the heavens and the earth. The lesser-known of the two verses describes the Last Day. I’ll quote the whole passage to give you a feel for the wider theme of God’s glory – a combination of ultimate power, righteousness and justice:


“These people have no grasp of God’s true measure.

On the Day of Resurrection, the whole earth will be in His grip.

The heavens will be rolled up in His right hand – Glory be to Him!

He is far above the partners they ascribe to Him! –

The trumpet will be sounded, and everyone in the heavens and earth will fall down senseless except those God spares.

It will be sounded once again and they will be on their feet, looking on.

The earth will shine with the light of its Lord; the Record of Deeds will be laid open; the  prophets and witnesses will be brought in.

Fair judgment will be given between them; they will not be wronged and every soul will be repaid in full for what it has done.

He knows best what they do” (Q. 39:67-70).


God’s absolute sovereignty is underlined through the images of the earth being in his hand (“in his grip,” heavens “rolled up in His right hand”); his loftiness (“high above the partners they ascribe to Him”); people knocked down senseless by the first sound of God’s Trumpet; the second blowing of the Trumpet brings them to their feet; the radiance of God’s light illuminating the earth. Notice too the expression, “Glory be to Him!” (subhanahu). The noun subhan is one of the words for glory, though it is more in the sense of “praise ascribed to God.” That expression is found 41 times in the Qur’an, and the verb “to praise,” or “glorify” God (sabbaha) occurs 38 times.

[There are two other words in Arabic often translated as “glory” in the Qur’an. The first is ‘izza (but it leans more toward the idea of power). Four times you find the expression, “Glory altogether belongs to God!” (Q. 4:139; 10:65; 35:10; 63:8). And once you find this title for God: “Your Lord, the Lord of Glory, is far above what they attribute to Him” (37:180). The word most used for “glory” in the Arabic Bible (majd), however, doesn’t appear in the Qur’an – just its derivative, the adjective majid: twice used for God, the All-glorious (Q. 11:73; 85:15); and twice used for the Qur’an: “the glorious Qur’an” (Q. 50:1; 85:21)].

Now the second verse, by far the most famous one on this topic – and undeniably one of the most beautiful verses in the Qur’an – is the “Light verse” (Q. 24:75), giving its title to that sura (chapter), “Light” (Nur) Here it is in the most common English translation for at least two generations, that by Yusuf Ali:


Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The Parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche and within it a Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon Light! Allah doth guide whom He will to His Light: Allah doth set forth Parables for men: and Allah doth know all things.”


Volumes have been written on this one verse, partly because of its poetic beauty and evocative imagery. That said, it is also open to many possible interpretations. God is beyond all human description; he is “transcendent,” since he is infinitely greater than anything he creates, including humankind, the pinnacle of his creation and his earthly trustees. Hence, you don’t read “God is light” (though this verse is the source for nur – Light – as one of the Beautiful Names of God). Instead, he is “the Light of the heavens and the earth.” Put otherwise, his luminous brilliance infuses all his creation.

Then follows the parable of the recess in the medieval wall of a house (the niche) wherein an olive oil lamp was placed to light up the house. The lamp in turn is encased in beautifully chiseled glass, which allows the glow of the flame to be refracted in multiple gleams. Hence the image of a “brilliant star”; then also the flame’s source, olive oil, leads to the picture of the olive tree, perhaps even the original tree in the Garden of creation, the Tree of Life. So light allows the earthly pilgrim to travel on the straight path that leads to life, and thus avoiding the side paths marked for destruction. So many images and symbols all wrapped together in such a short passage!

Referring to the context of this verse, Yusuf Ali comments, “Embedded within certain directions concerning a refined domestic and social life, comes this glorious parable of Light, which contains layer upon layer of allegorical truth about spiritual mysteries. No notes can do adequate justice to its full meaning.”

The word “allegorical” is intentional. Ali adds all manner of detail which I cannot reproduce here. So is the word “mysteries” – in fact, it’s the mystical side of Islam, the seekers of hidden knowledge (gnosis) in the Sufi tradition who have made the most of this verse. Arguably the greatest Sunni scholar of all, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), was able to bring together in his own person and writings three hitherto incompatible currents – mainstream Sunni theology and law, the mystical tradition of Sufism, and Islamic philosophy (though significantly trimmed down). Ghazali wrote a famous book on this verse, Mishkat al-Anwar (“The Niche of Lights”), using Neo-Platonic philosophy in a Sufi vein and a hadith about God saying to Moses that he speaks to him through 70,000 veils. If you peel through the layers of his esoteric mysticism, you encounter a man who through years of ascetic practices and spiritual disciplines is hungry to know God intimately. The Sufi saint (wali) is indeed the person who has achieved a high degree of union with God.

The Shi’i branch of Islam, as opposed to the majority Sunnis, has consistently kept open the doors of philosophy and rationalism. It is mostly in that vein that the Shi’a scholars have kept alive the Sufi tradition. By far the largest segment of Shi’a are Twelvers – think of Iran and Iraq. But the next branch is that of the Seveners, or the Ismailis, who are led by the Aga Khan, the Harvard-trained scholar and philanthropist extraordinaire. When it comes to the Qur’an, the Ismailis are known for their esoteric interpretations – that is, digging to find the secret meanings beneath the more obvious surface ones.

Here is an excerpt from the Aga Khan’s interpretation of the “Light verse.” Notice his style, an interesting combination of rationalism and mysticism. For him the niche is the human body, “whose function is to transmit to the human mind through its five sensory mediums, the external world. The Lamp is the entire life-force or the living spirit, whose first layer is the Glass or the mind, which is subtler than the body.” This leads him to see the olive tree as the heart, because it “manufactures” the oil. It is the reasoning spirit, but also “the seat of human emotions and feelings.” As such, the heart places man as a participant in two worlds – the physical world and the elevated spheres of the spiritual world. The oil it produces is “the essential fuel to ignite and enkindle the light of divine illumination in man.” So the human being is the lantern, which remains dormant until set alight by the divine spark:


“That moment is a moment of awakening, when man sees himself as Himself. That moment is a moment of rebirths, for man is reborn a superman, a prophet. That is his true birth, the birth of an ever living spirit, the dawn of Cosmic Consciousness, in which his past, present, future all become one. In that moment man achieves his ultimate Destiny – the Spiritual union with God.”


Other glimpses of God’s light in the Qur’an

As we learned above, God’s light can only be perceived by humans as it is reflected in creation. But this idea makes it very suitable for describing divine revelation. Ten verses use the metaphor of light to refer to the Qur’an itself. It is “an illuminating book” (munir) (Q. 3:184; 22:8; 35:25). Then seven other verses use the word nur, light (Q. 4:174; 5:15; 7:157; 9:32; 42:52; 61:8; 64:8). One example: “People, convincing proof has come to you from your Lord and We have sent a clear light down to you” (Q. 4:174 Abdel Haleem).

Notice that revelation in the Qur’an is always a “sending down” (nazzala). Part of that idea is due to the ancient near-eastern idea of eternal tablets in heaven that are then brought down to humans. Another reason relates to the symbol of light – just as the sun’s rays illumine and bring life to the earth, so God’s revelation brings down his blessing and salvation to humanity.

Notice too that the Qur’an uses the word “light” to describe the Torah (5:44; 6:91) and the Gospel (5:46). But we have to look elsewhere to find the idea of God’s glory.


God’s glory in the Qur’an

As you might have guessed, light is related to glory in both Qur’an and Bible. One of the most common Qur’anic words is aya (pl. ayat), meaning either a verse in the Qur’an or a sign of God in Creation. In this respect, there is one interesting story that deals with the theme of glory – Moses called by God to climb Mount Sinai in order to receive the law. One detail in the Qur’an is conflated with an event in the Bible that happens later, when the people are just about to embark on their trek to the Promised Land. In both cases, Moses asks God to show himself to him – but in the Exodus narrative Moses specifically asks to see God’s glory.

Here I will follow an unlikely guide into this topic – the Shi’i scholar who ignited and then led the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini. I invite you to read the article in its entirety, taken from a Shi’i digital library based in Pakistan.

The title is “The Relationship between Allah and His Creation” and at the heart of his meditation is the long passage about Moses in Sura 7 (“The Heights,” al-A’raf). Recall my earlier statement that a hadith mentions 70,000 veils standing between Moses and God. Yet Moses is the only prophet who spoke directly with God, his title being the kalim Allah. Though Khomeini mentions this at one stage, his aim here is to explain the relationship between Creator and the created. It is nothing like father and son, or like the sun and its rays, or a person and her mental states. Rather, an infinite chasm separate the two; nevertheless, in this encounter between God and Moses for forty days on Mount Sinai, God replies to Moses’ request in the following manner:


“‘You will never see Me, but look at that mountain: if it remains standing firm, you will see Me,’ and when his Lord revealed Himself (lit. “was transfigured,” or “glorified”) to the mountain, He made it crumble: Moses fell down unconscious. When he recovered, he said, ‘Glory be to You! To You I turn in repentance! I am the first to believe!’” (Q. 7:143 Abdel Haleem).


As we will discover in the next blog, this is very close to the notion of God’s glory in Bible – except for the details of when and how this took place. In both cases, though, God is infinitely greater than humanity or any other element of the created order. There is therefore a powerful radiance to his presence when he appears in any form. In a similar expression to the one used in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, when God displays his glory to the mountain, it disintegrates and Moses is knocked out. Still, this is a unique episode in the Qur’an.

What strikes Khomeini is the prophet Moses’ mystical experience. Leading up to this, he writes about the names of God, best exemplified in the besmallah (the formula that precedes all 114 suras but one): “In the name of the Rahman and the Rahim.” He puts it this way:


“The glory of Allah's Exalted Name is revealed in everything. Allah's name Rahman (Beneficent) is the reflection of His beneficence in the state of action and His name Rahim (Merciful) is the reflection of His mercy in the state of action.”


Now follow his Sufi meditation on these names. For him they represent stages, steps that climb upwards, as each stage of spiritual initiation is successfully completed. This points to a “higher philosophy,” one that only the Sufi saints, “the friends of Allah, can grasp and put to use. Hence his own mystical interpretation of this verse:


As for the Prophets the Qur'an says at one place: And when his Lord revealed His glory to the mountain, He sent it crashing down. And Moses fell down senseless (Surah al-A'raf, 7:143). When Allah imparted special spiritual training to Moses he said to Allah: 'My lord, let me see you.' Obviously an eminent Prophet cannot ask for seeing Allah with his physical eyes. Therefore his request must have been for a kind of seeing appropriate to the seer and the object to be seen. But even this kind of seeing was not possible, Moses said to Allah: 'My Lord! Let me see you.' The answer was: 'you will not see Me.' Allah further said: 'But gaze upon the mountain.’

What is meant by the mountain here? Does it signify Mount Sinai? Was it that the glory that could not be revealed to Moses, could be revealed to this mountain? If some other people had been present at the Mount Sinai at that time, could they also see the revelation of Allah's glory? The sentence, 'Gaze upon the mountain' implies a promise. Allah said: 'You cannot see Me. But gaze upon the mountain. If it stands still in its place, then you will see Me.' (Surah al-A'raf, 7:143) There is a possibility that the mountain here might have meant the remnant of egoism still left in Moses. As the result of the revelation of glory the mountain was smashed. In other words egoism of Moses was completely done away with. 'And Moses fell down senseless.' That means that Moses reached the stage of completely passing away of his human attributes.”


Final thought

Such a short article (and yes, a long blog!) cannot do justice to the topic. I hope, however, to have uncovered for you at least the main idea of God’s light in the Qur’an – how it emanates from his person as rays from the sun and turns all of Creation into signs (ayat) of his glory. Again, it is so appropriate that in Arabic ayat refers both to God’s Signs embedded in Creation and the verses of the Book which he sent down to humankind.

The other point I have stressed is the persistent mystical strain in the Islamic tradition. Sufism is much more central to the Islamic experience historically than even many Muslims realize today. The Light Verse sits at the heart of it, and the prophet Moses represents the archetype of the person who leaves everything behind in order to climb up the arduous steps of spiritual purification and training, aiming to reach one day the glorious goal – union with God. That said, the Prophet Muhammad, as the Seal of the Prophets, is even greater. In his Night Journey he was taken up to the very presence of God above the seven heavens (though it’s not by chance that Moses was on the top level and that he is the one who prods him to bargain with God from 50 prayers a day down to 5!).

Nevertheless, the idea of God’s glory in Creation also reveals the biggest contrast between Qur’an and Bible. Whereas the created order is indeed a collection of signs pointing to God’s glory (Psalm 19, Romans 1:20), and whereas the Bible sees itself as God’s inspired word, in the person of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, God enters creation as the Eternal Word. John in the Prologue of his gospel puts it this way:


“So the Word became human and made his home among us.

He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.

And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son” (John 1:14 NLT).


More on this shortly.

For over a year now I’ve added to this file labeled “drones.” Yes, I’m distraught at the thought that the White House with the advice of intelligence agencies systematically kills people deemed “terrorists” with missiles fired by drones. Our president just made a policy speech on the issue this week and despite the good news that there will be better oversight by other branches of government (and his clarifying that this is no “war”), drones will continue to be the weapon of choice for fighting al-Qaeda and their ilk.

First, I’ll make some comments about drones and then widen the debate about “empire” itself.


Why Drones are a very bad idea

Here are four of some of the most salient reasons I’ve gleaned from my readings:

1. Targeted killings outside of war: this is the legality issue. With 52 strikes in Pakistan under the Bush Administration and over 280 during Obama’s tenure, scant attention was ever given to established rules of international law. War has to be declared, and then very specific standards apply for lethal engagement. Afghanistan is the only country out of four where drones are being used that is officially at war. That said, most of the strikes have been in Pakistan, with others in Somalia and Yemen. Worse yet, there have been many “double tap” strikes – strike once and when people come to rescue the wounded, another missile goes off. This only multiplies the number of civilian casualties, a point to be made later.

In September 2012 Ben Emmerson, the UN’s special rapporteur on counter-terrorism, announced in a speech at Harvard University that the UN would set up an investigations unit in Geneva to gather more facts about these secretive operations and determine their legality. Emmerson said,

The global war paradigm has done immense damage to a previously shared international consensus on the legal framework underlying both international human rights law and international humanitarian law. It has also given a spurious justification to a range of serious human rights and humanitarian law violations.”

The most extensive study of this issue was jointly made by Stanford University and the State University of New York. It demolished the prevailing narrative of surgically precise strikes with minimal collateral damage. You can read all the details on their dedicated site (sorry, no longer available; great stats here). Here’s an excerpt from the Executive Summary:

“Following nine months of intensive research—including two investigations in Pakistan, more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting—this report presents evidence of the damaging and counterproductive effects of current US drone strike policies. Based on extensive interviews with Pakistanis living in the regions directly affected, as well as humanitarian and medical workers, this report provides new and firsthand testimony about the negative impacts US policies are having on the civilians living under drones.”

2. Civilian deaths and terrorized populations: the Stanford/NYU study claims that “there is significant evidence that drone strikes have injured and killed civilians”:

“The best currently available public aggregate data on drone strikes are provided by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent journalist organization. TBIJ reports  that from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children.”

That of course has been a reoccurring complaint and source of great anger in Afghanistan as well. But think of the populations, like in northwest Pakistan, where most of these attacks have taken place. Recall in your mind the panic and terror of New York residents in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and multiply that several times. This is a bit long, but it’s essential for us to try and put ourselves in these people’s situation:

“Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves. These fears have affected behavior. The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators. Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school. Waziris told our researchers that the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals. In addition, families who lost loved ones or their homes in drone strikes now struggle to support themselves.”

See also the chilling interviews in an article published by The Atlantic.

3. Their effectiveness in keeping the US safe is seriously in doubt: for one, the percentage of terrorist operatives killed in these strikes in relation to total casualties is around 2%. But too, drones have proven to be a recruiting boon for al-Qaeda and associates. Undoubtedly this was one of the reasons that led President Obama to announce a new drone program with more oversight and transparency .

4. Such flouting of international law could set a dangerous precedent: this is how the Stanford/NYU study put it:

“US practices may also facilitate recourse to lethal force around the globe by establishing dangerous precedents for other governments. As drone manufacturers and officials successfully reduce export control barriers, and as more countries develop lethal drone technologies, these risks increase.”

China and Japan are already jostling for position in an ominous “drone race” in their conflict over the Diaoyu (Chinese) or Senkaku (Japanese) islands. The new conservative (and bellicose) administration of Shinzo Abe in Japan is ratcheting up military spending and is acquiring US drones. Meanwhile, China’s defense budget has skyrocketed – over 600% from 2002 to 2011 and it is now developing its own drones. According to The Guardian, “A 2012 report by the Pentagon acknowledged long-standing rumours that China was developing a new generation of stealth drones, called Anjian, or Dark Sword, whose capabilities could surpass those of the US's fleet.”

If that isn’t alarming enough, you can peer into the future of warfare, when robots will definitely rule. A BBC article  quotes Brookings Institute warfare specialist Peter W. Singer. For him, the arrival of drones, or “robot warriors,” “raises profound questions”:

“Every so often in history, you get a technology that comes along that's a game changer. They're things like gunpowder, they're things like the machine gun, the atomic bomb, the computer – and robotics is one of those. When we say it can be a game changer, it means that it affects everything from the tactics that people use on the ground, to the doctrine, how we organise our forces, to bigger questions of politics, law, ethics, when and where we go to war."

These “profound questions” are also about the wider context of the US deployment of drones in the “war against terror.” President Jimmy Carter wrote a candid and courageous OpEd in the New York Times a year ago, “A Cruel and Unusual Record.” The opening salvo is his thesis: “The United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights.” Targeted killings – and especially of US citizens, indefinite detaining of suspects in places like Guantánamo Bay, torture, warrantless wiretapping and government surveillance of its citizens – these are some of the human rights abuses Carter notes that have come on the heels of 9/11. He adds,

“At a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, basic rules of law and principles of justice enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends.”


Musings about a waning empire

A columnist for the British daily The Independent, Owen Jones, waxed eloquent about the world’s “last remaining superpower now at its weakest since World War II” (the war, I might add, that sealed the fate of the moribund British empire):

“Coupled with the US's ongoing failure to pressure Israel into accepting a just peace with the Palestinians, no wonder there is rising global anger at Obama. But of course, the issue isn't Obama, any more than it was Bush before him. The issue is US power. But despite its best efforts – and as menacing as it can be for Pakistani villagers and Bahraini democrats – its power is in decline. The US share of global economic output was nearly a quarter in 1991; today, it represents less than a fifth. The financial crash has accelerated the ongoing drain in US economic power to the East. Latin America, regarded as the US's backyard since the 1823 Monroe Doctrine claimed it for the US sphere of influence, is now dominated by governments demanding a break from the free-market Washington Consensus. And the Iraq war not only undermined US military prestige and invincibility, it perversely boosted Iran's power in the Middle East.”

I’ll close with a startling book review by a young and fiery Christian scholar, Eugene McCarraher, whose book, The Enchantments of Mammon: Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination, will soon come out. Amazingly, several phrases of his review appear on the cover of the journal in which it is published, Books & Culture (May/June 2013 issue), an evangelical publication. McCarraher is here commenting on a widely acclaimed book, David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2011).

Just a quick parenthesis on Graeber … He was an assistant professor in the Anthropology Department at Yale, widely popular with students and with a string of publications in his field. In 2005 he was told his contract would not be renewed – most likely for political reasons. For one thing, he wrote about anthropology as an anarchist. Also, he’s a veteran of the antiglobalization movement and more recently the scholarly voice of the Occupy Wall Street Movement internationally (see this article for more details).

Back to our associate professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University, Eugene McCarraher, whose work closely parallels that of Graeber’s. They both see capitalism as an insidious tool in the hands of the bourgeoisie (the “Plutocracy”), a tool that in the case of America has also enabled it to extend and bolster its far-reaching empire. That is the point of my own “Resources” entry on this site, "The Dark Side of Empire."

In this blog dealing with the drone war, I have emphasized the violent nature of the American empire. Here I end with a sobering reminder, not just that empires wax and wane – that’s been a staple of human history – but that our religious leaders are either eerily silent about its moral abuses or enthusiastically cheering them on. I think President Carter (still teaching Sunday School, I believe) would agree with much of this stinging indictment of the church’s endorsement of “the Chrapitalist gospel”:

“Don’t expect any breadth or grandeur from the Empire’s Christian divines. Across the board, the imperial chaplains exhibit the most obsequious deference to the Plutocracy, providing imprimaturs and singing hallelujahs for the civil religion of Chrapitalism: the lucrative merger of Christianity and capitalism, America’s most enduring covenant theology. It’s the core of ‘American exceptionalism.’the sanctimonious and blood-splattered myth of providential anointment for global dominion. In the Chrapitalist gospel, the rich young man goes away richer, for God and Mammon have pooled their capital, formed a bi-theistic investment group, and laundered the money in baptismal founts before parking it in offshore accounts. Chrapitalism has been America’s distinctive and gilded contribution to religion and theology, a delusion that beloved community can be built on the foundations of capitalist property. As the American Empire wanes, so will its established religion; the erosion of Chrapitalism will generate a moral and spiritual maelstrom.”

Certainly, this is not the Jesus I know. Human Trustees as a project is a vision of Jesus calling all peoples to love God and love their neighbors – and in so doing, care for the earth and all its creatures entrusted to them. That also means promoting peace and conflict resolution wherever possible. There’s got to be a better way than killer drones.

I mentioned in my previous blog (highlighting the work of Bishop Kenneth Cragg) that we had just reached an ominous signpost on the way to a warmer, more hostile planet. The atmosphere’s concentration of CO2 had just topped 400 parts-per-million. Now, what can you and I do about slowing down this rush toward a truly frightening world ahead?

I’ll start with some practical steps (they’ll simply be reminders for most of you) and offer more resources; then I’ll take a step back, ending with a needed strategy for us as a human family on a global scale.


Reducing my carbon footprint

Wikia.com has a “wiki” called “Green Wiki.” Read through their "101 Tips" for reducing one’s carbon footprint. True to their mission to multiply knowledge by pooling resources by anyone for anyone (they now manage 200,000 wikis worldwide – and this is separate from, though related to Wikipedia), this page has a dizzying number of great links on the topic of sustainability.

If you want to start with fewer steps to digest, try Public Radio’s "15 Ways" to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint.” Just to give you an idea of what we’re dealing with, let me give you just five – ones that I hadn’t thought about much before:


            1. “Try to use something other than black plastic garbage bags. The black bags can't be recycled because of their black pigment. If possible, use white bags or better yet no bags.”

            2. Millie Jefferson on Public Radio says “Chuck your Microwave,” but she’s really saying, “Avoid buying and use ready-made frozen meals.” Makes sense: “Cook fresh food when you can, and you'll also find yourself eating out less often.” The Green Wiki says, “Use a microwave to heat and cook food; microwaves are more efficient than regular ovens and hobs.” And if you’re using an oven, always put your food on the highest tray, where there is the most heat.

            3. I have friends who are vegetarian, and even some who are vegans. I get it. The production of meat is very inefficient; it pollutes the planet; and it often means tragic abuse of animal rights. But we moved into my 86-year-old mother-in-law’s house and we care for her daily needs. She loves her meat and with other challenges to face, that is not one worth fighting over. So I like this gradual approach: “Eat one less serving of meat a week. Use a cheese-free alternative each week. Cheese is an animal product and has the same carbon cost as meat. Cattle release a great deal of methane into the atmosphere. Consider unendangered fish, beans, and soy as replacements for beef, dairy, and fowl protein.”

            4. “Stop watering your lawn. Grow a garden instead. Lawns require lawnmowers, which require fuel. Gardens allow you to grow veggies which require less trips to the produce section.” Again, in our case we can’t change everything overnight, but we do have a good vegetable garden and the next step is to start composting.

            5. “Avoid unnecessary trips to the store, do grocery shopping monthly or at most weekly. This will save you money as well.” Oh, the discipline of keeping a running list of things to buy, so you don’t have to keep going back to the store!!


But really, the old adage “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!” covers most of the ground you’ll need to cover for a while! We all have to make an effort to buy less, fix what we have, and work harder at recycling what we have used. And, by the way, maybe you shouldn’t buy that hybrid car you’re drooling over … the energy and resources necessary to produce it might better be offset if you kept driving your present car several more years.

I’d love to have solar panels installed on my roof. Hopefully, we’ll be able to pull this off financially at some point. Also, I’d be thrilled to convince my church to do that – many are doing just that in our state. But all in good time. What I’m saying here is that the biggest gain for our planet will come from humans switching to clean and renewable sources of energy. We have to wean ourselves from fossil fuels.


Breaking the grip of fossil fuels

I referred to Jeffrey D. Sachs, Special Adviser to the UN General Secretary on environmental issues. Besides his professorship in two areas at Columbia University (Sustainable Development and Health Policy and Management), he directs their Earth Institute and, more significantly, the UN-sponsored Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Pay attention to what he writes, including a recent OpEd piece in the New York Times on where the world economy should be heading.

Here’s his pithy summary of the toxic link between carbon emissions and climate change:   


Several gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, warm the planet as their concentrations in the atmosphere increase. As the world economy grows, so do emissions of these gases, accelerating the pace of human-caused climate change.

The main greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide. Most CO2 emissions result from the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – for energy, global consumption of which is rising as the world economy grows. As a result, we are on a path to very dangerous levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Twenty years ago, the world agreed to reduce sharply emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, but little progress has been made. Instead, the rapid growth of the emerging economies, especially coal-burning China, has caused global CO2 emissions to soar.


Plainly, and with all urgency, we have to move to a low-carbon global economy. There are two solutions, Sachs says, but neither has been developed on a wide scale:


The first is to shift massively from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, especially wind power and solar power. Some countries will also continue to use nuclear power. (Hydroelectric power generation emits no CO2, but there are only a few remaining places in the world where it can be expanded without major environmental or social costs.)

The second solution is to capture CO2 emissions for storage underground. But this technology, called carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), is not yet proven on a large scale. One approach is to capture the CO2 at the power plant as the coal or gas is burned. Another is to capture it directly from the air using specially designed chemical processes. Either way, CCS will require significant investment in further research and development before it becomes a viable technology. 


So the greatest obstacle is time … and politics. In a more recent article he writes, “America is still the land of Big Oil. Americans are bombarded by industry-funded media downplaying climate change, while countries that are much poorer in fossil fuels are already making the necessary transition to a low-carbon future.”

The two hopeful models are in Europe. France has turned to nuclear energy, while Germany (courageously, I might add) has massively invested in clean, renewable energy, mostly wind and solar. But different countries, with their own unique set of natural resources and political realities, will have to choose their own path to de-carbonizing their economies.

He then adds, “…but we will all need to get to the same place: a new energy system built on low-carbon sources, electrification of vehicles, and smart, energy-efficient buildings and cities.”

And by the way, Sachs points out the mirage represented by the current rush to natural gas – a phenomenon that is transforming the economy of my own state of Pennsylvania:


“Even the much-heralded shale-gas revolution is a lot of hype – similar to the gold rushes and stock bubbles of the past. Shale-gas wells deplete far more rapidly than conventional fields do. And they are environmentally dirty to boot.”


In the end, natural gas, though less carbon-intensive than coal or oil, still sends tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. No, we desperately need to be weaned off of all fossil fuels!


Getting radical

I’m not the activist I sometimes wish I could be. But again, within the limits of my family and work responsibilities, I participated in two marches in 2003 and 2004 protesting the war in Iraq and I'm always writing letters to politicians and signing petitions. We all do what we can!

But in closing, I’ll leave you with a taste for what some people are doing to fight the iron grip Big Industry maintains on the high-carbon status quo.

Bill McKibben teaches environmental science at Lehigh University but is best known for his books in this field and his activism. Founder of 350.org, McKibben is organizing a concerted campaign this summer to nonviolently pressure the powers that be on several related issues. You can read about it on jointhesummerheat.org:

This past week we humans crossed an ominous threshold. The concentration of the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere reached a level considered dangerous only twenty years ago – 400 parts per million. Caleb Sharf, Director of Columbia University’s Astrobiology Center, represents the scientific consensus when stating that this increase in CO2 emissions is man-made:


This is seen most starkly if we take a look at a rather longer timeline – made using ice-core measurements of atmospheric CO2 (since our ancestors weren’t monitoring the atmosphere for us). It begins going uphill just around 1760 – the start of the Industrial Revolution . . . Although CO2 concentrations have been far from stable over the past 800,000 years, they take a sharp upward turn right in line with the rise of industrialized human civilization.”


Still, Sharf continues, you’d have to go back at least 3 million years. Before that, CO2 concentrations were likely 5 to 20 times higher than now. But remember, there were no humans then either! The last million years or so with its low concentrations of CO2 were the ideal window for our species to develop. That’s a bit scary, when you think about it:


The fascinating but rather terrifying thing is that we’ve now gone global, and we’ve learned how to extract vast amounts of energy from our environment, driven by an extraordinary ability to innovate and survive. By doing so we’ve altered that window, significantly changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere. And although I’m not going to discuss it in detail here, simple physics tells us what’s going to happen next . You cannot deny basic thermodynamics.”


Five years in the making, the findings of one particular study  of global temperatures over the last two millennia was released last month. The International Geosphere-Biosphere Program had 87 scientists from 24 countries closely monitored the temperature trends, continent by continent. They discovered that despite regional differences all the factors driving a general cooling suddenly lost their power to cool the Earth around 1900. Why? I quote from my source in the Christian Science Monitor:


“The research wasn't designed to identify the cause of the warming trend, which climate researchers say has been triggered by a buildup of greenhouse gases – mainly carbon dioxide – as humans burned increasing amounts of fossil fuel and altered the landscape in ways that released CO2.

Still, it's hard to explain 20th-century warming without including the influence of rising CO2 levels, because the factors driving the cooling were still present, notes Darrell Kaufman, a researcher at Northern Arizona University and one of the lead authors on the paper formally reporting the results in the journal Nature Geoscience.”


The 400-parts-per-million milestone is, in any case, an ominous one. The New York Times article that day had more details than Sharf’s, and was, as you might expect, more dramatic: “Carbon Dioxide Level Passes Long-Feared Milestone.” It quotes Columbia University Earth scientist Maureen E. Raymo who quipped, “It feels like the inevitable march toward disaster.”

Some of the angst, understandably, comes from the fact that the oceans back in the Pliocene (over 3 million years ago) were 60 to 80 feet higher than today! Most scientists try not to sound too strident, however. Ralph Keeting, who heads up the climate change program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, put it cautiously that day: “It means we are quickly losing the possibility of keeping the climate below what people thought were possibly tolerable thresholds.”

The point is, humans have put their intelligence and ingenuity to use with great gusto – without expending much wisdom in the process – and are tampering with the intricate ecological balance the Creator himself engineered for his creatures. Human beings, God’s designated representatives of his honor and purposes on Earth, have obviously lost their way. Images of the sorcerer’s apprentice come to mind. As Jeffrey D. Sachs, Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals, puts it, 


“Dangerous changes in climate have already begun. If the world continues on its current trajectory, global temperatures will eventually rise by several degrees centigrade, causing higher sea levels, mega-storms, severe heat waves, massive crop failures, extreme droughts, heavy flooding, and a sharp loss of biodiversity.”


Bishop Kenneth Cragg, who died at age 99 last November, is the theologian and author who first taught me about the trusteeship of creation. I noticed again and again that this theme ran throughout his many books. I really did my best to return the favor in my own book on this topic, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. He then graciously accepted to write a Preface to it.

I fondly remember visiting him in his Oxford apartment in 2008. He insisted (as was his habit) on cooking dinner for me that evening. I came back for what was to be a lovely visit full of stimulating discussion. I noticed as well that his typewriter had a page half typed in it (no computers, please!). “Oh, that’s my latest project,” he said humbly. As it turned out, he had at least eight books published in his nineties!

Christopher Lamb, another Anglican academic, who has written the most about Cragg over the years, fittingly said this about him in his eulogy:


“Kenneth Cragg’s life work was summed up in the title of his best-known book, The Call of the Minaret, first published in 1956 and still in print.  In it he not only opened up for Christians a deeper understanding of the world of Islam, but summoned them to hear the implications of that call for themselves.  In an engagement with Islam extending over 70 years as missionary, scholar, bishop and friend, he earned the respect of Muslims for his knowledge of the Qur’an and the gratitude of Christians for showing how a deep familiarity with things Islamic can go hand in hand with unabashed witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  His conviction was that the logic of all that was true and honourable in Islam should lead Muslims to Christ.”


I have in many places commented on the stunning parallels in Bible and Qur’an on the issue of the human trusteeship, and most recently in a glossy journal issue on religion and ecology published in Qatar by the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue. I will only echo three of his points from the Qur’an as I close this blog.

Adam and Eve have just disobeyed God and eaten from the forbidden tree. Both are equally guilty in the Qur’anic narrative. Both are equally forgiven – but both are still expelled from the heavenly garden and sent to earth. As Q. 2:36 puts it, “on earth will be your dwelling place.” Yet before the disobedience story, verse 30 had God announcing to the angels that he was sending Adam on earth as his khalifa – his “caliph,” his representative, his trustee. Cragg, then, is right to connect this mission to “colonize” the earth (literally, in Q. 11:61) with the couple’s mandate to do so as God’s trustees.

The first point Cragg makes is that humans can only fulfill this calling as worshippers of God – his servants (‘abid, plural of ‘abd). So a trustee is first and foremost one who submits to God in reverence and obedience. His imperium, as Cragg has it, or his mandate to rule the Earth (using the gifts God gave him in the first place) should be carried out as an act of worship:

The role of man as khalïfa both validates his empire and expects his empire and expects his hallowing, and both in essential unity. For if he wielded no mastery he could bring no submission. He would have nothing to offer or to consecrate. His very culture and all his works are the substance of his Godward obligation” (The Mind of the Qur’an: Chapters in Reflection, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1973, p. 141).

The second point is that being sent to manage the earth is to fulfill the role of tenants. The Arabic root of the verb ista’mara “combines the same twin ideas of time-occupancy and place tenancy and yields terms for a span of years and for an abode, a dwelling, an establishment . . . Men in this sense are all empire builders, exploiting the occasions of the years and of the lands, and all by the Divine design and leave” (The Privilege of Man: A Theme in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, London: The Athlone Press, 1968, p. 32).

Finally, says Cragg, this temporary residency on earth according to the Qur’an has a built-in accountability factor. Writing this in 1973, there wasn’t the same urgency as now, but God’s judgment is there, waiting in the wings: “Nature offers both delight and duty but only in unison. Economy and ecology, wealth and habitation, are as it were a constant interrogation of his environment by the mind of man. The questioner is himself questioned” (The Mind of the Qur’an, p. 153).

What is clear for us now is that human arrogance, greed and selfishness has brought us to the brink of ecological doom. We are passing on a planet to our children that will be more and more unfit to inhabit. It’s the only one we have.

Next time I will explain, as I’m sure many of you know already, what are some of the steps we can take to mitigate the crisis before us. So far the French and Germans are ahead of the curve. But I’m getting ahead of myself . . .

Is God just? If you look at all the injustices of this world – innocents suffering everywhere, powerful oppressing weak at will, and evil systems suffocating the righteous – the evidence seems to point in the opposite direction. That’s the problem of evil (how to reconcile an all-powerful God with the doctrine that he is also good or totally just). I won’t tackle that here. All religions and all comprehensive systems of thought (like Marxism) have to offer some kind of solution (a “theodicy”) to this – God or no God.

Yet both Bible and Qur’an present God as just – and never more so than on the Day of Reckoning, the Last Day, or the Final Judgment.

But first, let me back up a bit. In the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament for Christians) God’s justice is represented on earth by the king. This is nicely expressed in the beginning of Psalm 72 (ascribed to Solomon):


“Give your love of justice to the king, O God,

            and righteousness to the king’s son.

Help him judge your people in the right way;

Let the poor always be treated fairly” (vs. 1-2).


So God’s nature includes the virtue of justice. Some of you know this was a hotly debated topic in the third to fifth Islamic centuries, when the rationalists, called Mu’tazilites (mu’tazila in Arabic), made this point one of their five chief distinctives. God is just; justice is an objective value (they were avid students of Greek philosophy); God is bound to act justly; e.g., he can’t send a good person to hell or admit a bad person into heaven.

Readers who have read some of my work on contemporary Islamic law will know how important this last point is. It’s about ethics (the theory of the good) and it goes back to Plato: is an act good because it is good in itself (it partakes in objective goodness); or is it good because the gods say it is? All reformist stirrings in the field of Islamic law today gravitate toward ethical objectivism (the Mu’tazilite position, especially in their confident assertion that the primary objective of the Shari’a is to promote the welfare – maslaha – of human beings). Meanwhile, the traditional position of ethical voluntarism (only revelation can tell us what is right and wrong) is losing ground. Though not among ultra-conservatives like the Salafis.

Despite these debates, however, both Qur’an and Bible honor God as the epitome of the righteous judge.

The later Psalms, for instance, tell of God coming to judge the earth. Here is a good example:


“Tell all the nations, ‘The Lord reigns!’

The world stands firm and cannot be shaken.

He will judge all peoples fairly.

Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice!

Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!

Let the fields and their crops burst out with joy!

Let the trees of the forest rustle with praise

before the Lord, for he is coming!

He is coming to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with justice,

and the nations with his truth” (Ps. 96:10-13 NLT).


Notice how justice is here associated with truth. A righteous judge gives a true verdict. He will not be bribed by the powerful and rich. Whether poor or rich, the guilty are punished and the innocent vindicated. Sadly, in human society, this is not always so. Long before Israel’s theology was sure about an afterlife and even less about divine judgment after death, the prophet Isaiah offered this poignant prayer:


“All night long I search for you;

            in the morning I earnestly seek for God.

For only when you come to judge the earth will people learn what is right” (Isaiah 26:9 NLT).


So we come to the Last Day, the Day of Judgment, where in both texts God’s verdict is absolutely fair and just. Only God, after all, can know all of a person’s actions; only he can fathom a person’s secret thoughts, desires and motivations. Thus only the Almighty can exemplify perfect justice.

Probably because the Meccans were primarily business people, the Qur’an uses commercial imagery (all quotes from the Abdel Haleem translation):


“We will set up the scales of justice for the Day of Resurrection so that no one can be wronged in the least, and if there should be even the weight of a mustard seed, We shall bring it out: We take excellent account” (Q. 21:47).

“On that Day, people will come forward in separate groups to be shown their deeds: whoever has done an atom’s-weight of good will see it, but whoever has done an atom’s-weight of evil will see that” (Q. 99:6-7).

“On a Day when people will be like scattered moths and the mountains like tufts of wool, the one whose good deeds are heavy on the scales will have a pleasing life, but the one whose good deeds are light will have the Bottomless Pit for his home” (Q. 101:4-9).


Yet, whatever the imagery used, the judgment is based on deeds:


“How will they fare when We gather them together for a Day of which there is no doubt, when every soul will be paid in full for what it has done, and they will not be wronged?” (Q. 3:25).

“The record of their deeds will be laid open and you will see the guilty, dismayed at what they contain, saying, ‘Woe to us! What a record is this! It does not leave any deed, small or large, unaccounted for!’ They will find everything they ever did laid in front of them: your Lord will not be unjust to anyone” (Q. 18:49).


Now to the Bible. The classic text in the New Testament is in the book of Revelation:


“And I saw a great white throne and the one sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide. I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books. The sea gave up its dead, and death and the grave gave up their dead. And all were judged according to their deeds. Then death and the grave were thrown into the lake of fire. This lake of fire is the second death. And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:11-15 NLT).


The Apostle Paul speaks in similar terms:


“For a day of anger is coming, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will judge everyone according to what they have done. He will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good, seeing after the glory and immortality that God offers. But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness” (Rom. 2:5-8 NLT).


Jesus himself taught very clearly and consistently this same message. “Come and follow me,” he told his would-be disciples. Faith, of course, is crucial too. But faith rolled up into obedience is the only kind of true faith. As Jesus said near the end of his Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter” (Mat. 7:21). You can know a tree only by the fruit it produces, Jesus often told his disciples. Deeds count enormously.

Here the Protestant in me shifts uncomfortably in his seat. Verses I was weaned on include:


“For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 NLT).

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

“God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” (Eph. 3:8-10).


But this is the point of hermeneutics. You have to bring together all the disparate strands and make sense of the whole. Jesus’ step-brother James (according to most commentators) weds faith and good works in a similar way that Paul does in the above verse: “Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works” (James 2:26).

But this is not just a “Christian problem.” Both Muslims and Christians believe that God is full of mercy and forgives the sinners who repent. Salvation in the end comes by God’s grace. Where they disagree is on what basis God forgives. The Qur’an says that God sovereignly chooses to forgive out of his own mercy – thus temporarily laying aside his justice for a greater good. But since one never knows ahead of time, better to pray for an intercessor on that Day, preferably the Prophet himself.

The New Testament is clear that repentance and faith must be focused on the God who sent Jesus, the sinless man, to die for humanity’s sins. Then he vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead and appointing him to be Judge on the Last Day. Genuine faith in Jesus, which includes the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit to guide and empower the believer in this new life, is what saves.

Intriguingly, it is on the topic of Judgment Day that we find the most dramatic convergence between the two faith traditions. The following parable of Jesus finds an almost exact parallel in a hadith reported by Abu Hurayra in Sahih Muslim’s collection (I mention this in the last pages of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text). It is a passage well worth meditating by both communities. In doing so, we will find ourselves actively engaged side by side to meet the needs of the poor and to relieve the pain of those suffering the most, like Pastor Bob Roberts said to a group of dignitaries this week in Doha:


When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”


Then the King (obviously God in the story) turns to those who had not cared for those in need and says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (v. 45). And they were sent away to destruction. God’s just verdict had been passed.

This concludes my blogs on the justice lectures I delivered in Singapore in January 2013. We started with some of the best theoreticians of secular justice in the political arena and then dealt with Jesus’ teaching on justice. Last time we looked at the centrality of justice both in the Qur’an and in Muslim practice. We continue and conclude with the work of some key figures in Malaysia.

My main point here is that though justice may be everyone’s slogan, Muslims see it working out in radically different ways, depending on which current of thought they choose to follow. And each current reads the Qur’an differently – it’s about hermeneutics.

But first, what has the rising tide of conservative Islam in Malaysia done to change family law and what might this say to us about hermeneutics? Might there be a “disconnect” between female aspirations for greater justice and the greater restrictions on their agency imposed by male ulama (jurists/Islamic scholars)?


Today’s Muslim “disconnect”

A recent article bordering on law and sociology deals with the modern tension between Islamic law in Malaysia and the status of women (“Islamic Law, Women’s Rights, and Popular Consciousness in Malaysia,” by Tamir Mustafa in Law & Social Inquiry, 2012).

Mustafa notes that in the 19th and 20th centuries family law was codified in Muslim countries “in a manner that provides women with fewer rights than men” – a process “that was both selective and partial” (1). He then adds, “Far from advancing the legal status of women, legal codification actually narrowed the range of rights women could claim, at least in theory, in classical Islamic jurisprudence.”

Today, however, we are witnessing “a new mode of political engagement.” He continues, “… some of the most promising initiatives for expanding women’s rights in the Muslim world lie with activists who explain that the Islamic legal tradition is not a uniform legal code, but a diverse body of jurisprudence that affords multiple guidelines for human relations, some of which are better suited to particular times and places than others” (1).

Zainah Anwar, the founder of a particularly influential Malaysian NGO, Sisters in Islam, states that “[v]ery often Muslim women who demand justice and want to change discriminatory laws and practices are told ‘this is God’s law’ and therefore not open to negotiation and change.” As a result of this erroneous understanding of “Islam,” she contends, “the laws concerning marriage, divorce, child custody and a host of other issues critical to women’s well-being are effectively taken off the table as matters of public policy” (2).

In fact, for activists like Anwar, the biggest factor behind the disconnect between Islamic principles and practice is the reality of the modern nation-state. Traditionally, “The distinction between fiqh [the jurisprudence of the ulama] and siyasa [the policies of the rulers] helped distinguish the sphere of religious doctrine from the sphere of public policy” (6). This practical separation of mosque and state had another reason as well: “Fiqh had thrived, in all its diversity, largely due to the limited administrative capacity of the rulers” (7). Modern state bureaucracies, however, project a good deal more power!

Take a specific issue, that of the institutionalization of family status law in Malaysia. Between the arrival of the British in 1874 and the 1990s “Malaysia went substantially further [than other Muslim countries] in building state institutions with a monopoly on religious interpretation” (11). The net effect was a hardening of legal positions and a heightening of gender injustice.

According the 1984 Family Law Act, a mother’s custody of her boy ceases at 7 and at 9 for her daughter (Art. 84). On the issue of child custody, conditions were stipulated for a mother’s loss of custody, while no conditions were stated for a father (Art. 83).

In a nationwide survey on “popular legal consciousness,” conducted in 2009 through the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, 82% of respondents agreed with this statement: “Islam provides a complete set of laws for human conduct and each of these laws has stayed the same, without being changed by people, since the time of the Prophet.” This goes completely against the historical facts, exclaims Mustafa – Islamic law evolved over times and incurred many changes, whether between its various schools or within them.

These popular misconceptions, he goes on, “have significant implications for democratic deliberation on a host of substantive issues, of which women’s rights is just one important example” (13). This raises a wider issue – how the sacred texts are interpreted and how as a result the theoretical side of Islamic law is especially being rethought today (see "Emerging Voices").


The Hermeneutical divide

I have often written about the crucial nature of the interaction between text, reader and author – and at great length in my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text (which I just heard will come out in paperback this fall!). I say more here, but first I need to backtrack a bit.

In March 2006 I presented a paper on Islam and globalization at a conference at the University of Wisconsin. The paper was highlighting a scholar I have written a good deal more about since then, the Malaysian social scientist, Chandra Muzaffar. Now Professor of Global Studies at the Science University of Malaysia, he is best known as the long-time President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST).

Muzaffar himself got a hold of my paper through the Internet and contacted me. He then invited me to participate in an international conference (2008) he was sponsoring in Kuala Lumpur on the theme, “Religion in the Quest for Global Justice and Peace.” The conference itself was opened by Prime Minister Ahmad Badawi, and on the third day I was privileged to be one of two respondents for Muzaffar’s closing address, “Towards a Universal Spiritual and Moral Vision of Justice and Peace.”

When I heard that Prof. Chandra Muzaffar was giving two morning lectures at the Pathways conference in Singapore, I was thrilled. Appropriately, I determined to use the recent book (of which he had kindly sent me a copy) in my third lecture on justice, Muslims Today: Changes within, Challenges without (2011) [see this Pakistani blog reviewing the book].

In his first chapter, “The Concept of Equality in Islamic Thought,” he engages his Muslim readers by asserting that his ideas belong to “mainstream thinking,” to the “consensual middle” (11). As in other religious traditions, he adds, Muslims display a variety of positions and perspectives.

One aspect of justice is equality of everyone before the law. This should be the case in Islamic law as well, but when it comes to gender, this is not often the case. Parroting a typical conservative answer to this objection he writes, “One can argue, for instance, that the so-called inequalities exist because of the natural state of affairs. As an example, men have to lead; women have secondary roles in certain areas. This is integral to God’s plan. It is part of His perennial plan” (12).

“There is a flaw in this argument,” Muzaffar notes. “We know that there is no natural law about man’s leadership. . . . Indeed, women are as rational or irrational as men are.” Put otherwise, there is no social scientific or biological evidence today to support such a thesis. Issues of this kind should surely be resolved on the basis of reason. The same goes for calls to Muslim unity on the basis of Islam’s exclusive monopoly on religious truth. And this especially applies to any kind of discrimination between people on the basis of ethnicity or social class. Equality, he believes, should trump any kind of discriminatory judgment.

“But you’re going against specific texts in the Qur’an,” another Muslim might reply. This is how Muzaffar answers that objection:


“The Quran has a twofold purpose. First, it enunciates a universal message relevant for all times and pertinent to human beings in all circumstances. This it does by laying out eternal values and principles which one discovers through reflection and analysis of specific verses and the overall thrust of the Holy Book. Second, to make this exposition of a universal message meaningful to a particular people who had to practise it and, thereby, establish its validity for future generations, the Quran draws upon ideas and institutions, laws and lores which belonged to that specific, time-bound, place-bound context” (14).


This is the kind of reasoning that Pakistani-American scholar Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988) developed in his books. The universal message of Islam as revealed to and applied by the Prophet Muhammad in his 7th-century Arabian context was above all a message of liberation and dignity of the human being, irrespective of sex, race or class. What is needed for today, then, is a focus on these universal values and their application to the drastically different context of today’s humanity. Revelation, then, has to be unpacked from its early historical embodiment and repackaged to meet the needs of present day society.

So Muzaffar continues with this line of argument. “Indeed, as far as the position of women goes, there is no denying that the spirit of the Quranic message is irrevocably committed to liberation. It is the failure of succeeding generations to continue with these reforms – to transform the spirit of the message into the letter of the law – that one should condemn” (15).

In the end, how one interprets the Qur’an and Sunna is everything. Of course, “a far more progressive” interpretation of the sources is possible; just as “a more retrogressive conception” can be made of the consensual middle’s position (19). As you can see, there is a direct contrast between those who hold to the letter of the law come what may, and those who want to emphasize the spirit of the revelation which may lead one to discard the letter of the law, at least in some cases.

The divide, then, is between a textualist (text-centered) and a values-based hermeneutic. The latter is the “progressive” approach. Muzaffar puts it this way: “… progressive Islam emphasizes the spirit rather than the details contained in the scriptures … It is the underlying philosophy that it cherishes the most, the reasoning, the thinking, the emotion behind a particular instruction or prohibition” (19).

One therefore has to look at the historical and sociological context of a text, seeking to “understand the values and principles of Islam.” In turn, this involves “separating the contextual from the perennial” and focusing on the “unchanging fundamentals.” This will enable the Muslim to bring into view “Islam as an evolutionary, dynamic movement through time.”

Here Muzaffar comes back to his previous remark that in the spirit of early (and “authentic,” as he sees it) Islam, Muslims should enter into dialog with people of other faiths or no faith and should intentionally incorporate new knowledge from other intellectual traditions. Several Muslim currents today have become frankly xenophobic and unhealthily focused inward. This is wrongheaded, he laments.

More than ever today, Muslims should be displaying greater openness to other spiritual traditions. And here is where Muzaffar, despite his assertions to the contrary, leaves the “consensual middle.” I mean, how many Muslims would actually agree with his statement that “God is one, and Truth is indivisible” (20). By this Muzaffar is affirming with one of the great American scholars of religion, Huston Smith, that Truth is the summit of a mountain toward which in the end all religious traditions converge. No religion can claim a monopoly on truth or salvation.

Muzaffar, to be sure, is not the only Muslim scholar to hold to this view of theological pluralism. With regard to religion and ecology, I’ve written about the great Iranian-American philosopher, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who as a follower of the "Perennial Philosophy" also embraces this perspective. But it’s definitely a minority position.

Still, when it comes to hermeneutics or different readings of the Islamic sacred texts – including, of course, efforts to “reform” Islamic jurisprudence – you will find a wide spectrum of approaches today. My review of Mohammad Farooq’s recent book on Muslim law certainly underscores this point.

So as I conclude this series on justice by reminding us that “justice” as the convergences of such ideals as fairness, dignity for all human beings, human rights and equality before the law, and especially vindication, redress and affirmative action for the downtrodden – justice is a basic aspiration that all people share. Can religion become an engine for greater justice and harmony for humankind today? One can find stunning examples in both directions.

On this issue though, I believe Chandra Muzaffar is right, and perhaps this applies to all religious traditions. The danger comes from those who are stuck in the past and especially on past interpretations of the letter of sacred texts. In his words,


. . . conservative Islam “is obsessed with scriptural details, [a position] that negates reason and reflection, that is opposed to distinguishing the contextual from the perennial, that refuses to admit fresh currents of thought, that denies the need for interaction with other religions, that encourages, if unwittingly, static, fixed attitudes and beliefs which in reality repudiate universal truths” (20).


  • Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love
    Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love

    This was the page devoted to my small monograph published in Malaysia, Evolving Muslim Theologies of Justice: Jamal al-Banna, Mohammad Hashim Kamali and Khaled Abou El Fadl. It is now a 180-page (double-spaced) manuscript that should come out in 2019. You can also read a summary for each of the 6 chapters on the publisher's page. Here's the abstract, or précis:


  • Earth, Empire and Sacred Text
    Earth, Empire and Sacred Text

    This book seeks to construct a Muslim-Christian theological discourse on creation and humanity, which could help adherents of both faiths work together to preserve our planet, bring justice to its most needy inhabitants and contribute to peacebuilding in areas of conflict. For more information or to purchase (now also in paperback!)